Mar 13, 2014
Rocky’s got me hanging on the ropes.
There’s an old Hollywood taboo that says movies about boxing are box-office suicide. On the stage, where money is tight, space limitations prevent a third wall between the actors and the audience, and words and feelings are more important than movement, plays about sports are almost never even attempted–much less musicals (although even with its limitations, I remember enjoying Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy). Now comes the musical version of none other than Rocky, the movie that broke records, donning the gloves and ready to break them all over again.
Rocky is a smash hit that shows no sign of slowing down. It arrives with walls of awards and prizes from every corner, and blue-ribbon credentials for days. Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the original screenplay, is a producer and a collaborator on the book (with Thomas Meehan, who wrote Annie and The Producers). The rich and serviceable score is by the Tony winning songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime). And just as the movie and its numerous, dog-eared sequels turned Sylvester Stallone into some kind of scruffy stardom, the new singing, dancing, two-fisted Rocky repeats history with a sexy, dynamic, three-dimensional flesh-and-blood star named Andy Karl. He’s the biggest thing since Hugh Jackman, and as Rocky Balboa, the unlucky, downtrodden bum from the slums of Philly with a heart of molasses and the I.Q. of a mollusk, dreaming of being somebody in the eyes of the world even if fame is a one-night stand, he is very much the center of Rocky. He sings with power and persuasion–and surprisingly in tune. He dances in and out of the ring with complex precision. He looks like a movie star. He’s virile, he’s in command of the stage, he’s a one-man hormone explosion. He has charisma, a camera-ready physique from the cover of Today’s Health, and the kind of body language that leaves the audience transfixed from beginning to end. If Rocky ever ends, watch out for more big things from this guy. He is merely sensational.
He begins too old for the ring, barely eking out a day’s pay by supplementing his poverty collecting debts for a gang of thug. He’s got bruises, bloodstains and a black eye, but he’s also got pride. When he sings “My Nose Ain’t Broken Yet”, he’s the kind of gentle musclehead you just gotta root for. “Hang up the gloves, go to trade school, become a garage mechanic,” advises the cauliflower-eared has-been who eventually becomes his manager. After seven years at the gym, they even close down his locker to make room for younger guys. Hanging around his room at night, he’s a lonely bloke whose only companions are his pet turtles. But in a slick, low-key style that seems to be kidding Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, Rocky meets Adrian (golden-voiced Margo Seibert), a mousy spinster who works in a pet shop. She sings about his “broken face, hardscrabble life and sad, brown eyes” and after one crush of Rocky’s biceps, Adrian throws away her glasses and starts shopping at Macy’s.
It’s 1976, America’s bicentennial, and a perfect time to give an underdog the chance to prove America’s motto that everyone is equal. Rocky gets his break when he’s recruited to fight the championship match against Apollo (Terence Archie), the indestructible, bullet-headed black heavyweight champion of the world. Act One ends with 29 days to the fight. The audience rushes in after the break, ready for bear, and the second act follows a series of training montages in which Rocky beefs up even more, through his first Christmas as a happy couple with Adrian, and it eventually culminates in the Big Event itself. The odds are against Rocky. Nobody’s ever gone 15 rounds against Apollo. But if he does win, there’s a $150,000 jackpot and proof forever that the guy is more than a loser. Well, no need to tell you how it all turns out. Is there anyone not forbidden by religious dogma to go to the movies who has never seen Rocky?
What I must tell you–and the best reason of all to see the musical–is that you have never experienced anything on a Broadway stage like the championship bout that brings the show to a screaming, tumultuous finale. Multi-media staging with live TV cameras projecting the action on giant screens. Film montages. All choreographed in slow motion while being simultaneously. You are catapulted into the next best thing to Madison Garden before you know what hit you. Under the massively coordinated direction of Alex Timbers, the vast orchestra of the Winter Garden Theatre empties, a crew removes the seats, and the audience is marched onstage while the place is transformed into an actual boxing match with the ring in the center, surrounded by stadium bleachers where the stage used to be! I can still hear the stomping, cheering “Bravos” ringing in my ears like Democrats on Election Night.
People who diss Rocky because it’s old-fashioned and predictable are right. It’s sort of a construction worker’s Raging Bull with Kleenex. But the people who love Rocky are right, too, because it’s likeable and decent in a basic way that makes you glow. You go away from Rocky hugely entertained, with a song in your soul and hope in your heart.